In a Word ... Bone-fire

 

You may recall that towards the end of June last year in this column I wrote about Bonfire Night, which takes place on St John’s Eve, or June 23rd, every year in the west of Ireland mainly.

As then explained, bonfire is derived from a 16th-century Middle English word banefire which, it won’t surprise you to hear, originally concerned a fire where bones were burned.

When I was growing up, bonfire was actually pronounced “bonefire”. I used think this had more to do with accent than meaning and that the accurate pronunciation was probably bonfire. Then I discovered the Irish for bonfire was “tine chnámh” or fire of bones. Which I had forgotten and didn’t refer to last year.

I was reminded of it recently when someone reposted the In a Word column from last year on Facebook and my old friend Mary Wrafter Heraty provoked memories with a comment.

She wrote “Tine Cnámh, as Gaeilge, fire of bones, because in the past old bones were burned in the bonfire. The ashes were taken the following morning and symbolically spread on the land for the fruitfulness of crops.”

She recalled such bonfires from her rural childhood in Mayo and how “we would say a prayer around the fire with our parents and hold lighted furze (we called them whin) bushes high in the air as we cheered to our neighbours in unison yelling ‘up’ our own townland.”

Looking back, she could “still smell the burning embers, see the sparks disappearing into the night sky and our red faces from being too near the fire – nice memories!” Mary has a fine line in the lyrical, as you can see.

Indeed I remember, from my own rural upbringing in the townland of Mullen in northwest Roscommon, such bonfires at the crossroads near our house and how my grandfather would take lit embers from the fire and, symbolically, place them into one of our fields “for luck”. Probably the remains of some old pagan fertility ritual.

That was before our family traversed the 10km and several galaxies to the grand metropolis of Ballaghaderreen.

There such bonfires in those pre-EU directive days involved lots of tyres, not bones, and were accompanied by battles between street gangs where bones were more likely broken than burnt.

Ah yes, the good old days.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.